Leaders of the feared Cali drug cartel, which the United States says runs most of Colombia's cocaine trade, are considering a mass surrender and an exit from drug trafficking in return for reduced sentences and guarantees for their safety, government sources said Friday.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officers say the low-profile but ruthless Cali cartel has mushroomed during the last few years to take over most of Colombia's cocaine trade from Pablo Escobar's better-known and more violent Medellin cartel.
Among those interested in a deal, government sources say, are three of the international drug kingpins most wanted by the United States: Cali cartel leaders Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez Orijuela and Jose Santacruz Londono.
"The Cali narcos sent a lawyer of theirs as an emissary," one presidential source said. "We called a meeting with five top-level members of the government, and in the meeting the lawyer said 60 cartel members were ready to surrender."
"They said they wanted to leave drug trafficking forever and sort out their legal situation and they wanted to know what the government's opinion was."
The five government officials at the meeting--the prosecutor general, defense minister, attorney general and two police chiefs--told the cartel lawyer that rules governing surrenders already exist and that if the Cali chieftains wish to accept them, then their case could be studied.
"We made clear there will be no special arrangement for them," the government source said.
President Cesar Gaviria has introduced as a major plank of his government a law allowing drug traffickers to surrender, confess at least one crime and hand over their illicit gains in return for sharply reduced jail sentences.
Medellin cartel chief Escobar and his lieutenants took advantage of the scheme in 1991 to turn themselves in, but when evidence emerged that they were continuing to operate from behind bars in luxury surroundings in jail, the government tried to move them to more secure accommodation.
The group escaped, Escobar returned to organizing bomb attacks and police killings and international scorn rained down on the government. Since then a number of Escobar aides and Cali cartel members have surrendered, but none of the leaders have done so.
The Colombian police, who have been in the forefront of the war on drugs and have suffered scores of casualties, were cool about the Cali cartel chiefs' interest in surrender.
"If it happened we would have to respect what the government was doing, but we wouldn't like it," one police source said.
Diplomats in Bogota were equally skeptical.